And then, on Saturday while the president stayed in the hospital, two other high profile Republicans came near the president who tested positive for the virus – Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the Trump had helped prepare the debate last week.
After months of Trump and other members of his party questioning the threat of the virus and refusing to take precautions such as wearing masks, the Republican Party is now facing the scientific realities of the pandemic.
The drip-drip-drip of positive tests, coupled with the specter of a president who as of Saturday “was not on a clear path to a full recovery,”
And they have wondered how to have a strong closing campaign when the judgment, actions, and competence of their leaders have been challenged as directly as the voting begins across the country.
“There was a panic before this started, but now we’re kind of a stupid party,” said Edward J. Rollins, co-chair of pro-Trump super-PAC Great America. “Candidates are forced to defend themselves every day, whether they agree with this or with what the president did about the virus.”
“The president and the people around him disobeyed the rules,” said Republican strategist Michael Steel, who stood by former House Speaker John Boehner. “We wish him and his family a speedy recovery, but he has been ruthless and voters concerned with the health and economic implications for them and their families will not see it kindly.”
Stuart Stevens, a veteran Republican adviser working with the anti-Trump Lincoln project, said there was “fatalism” among GOP officials and donors. “They ask themselves, ‘What can you do? How can you turn this ‘”
Stevens said, “If I ran a Senate race, I’d run out and say the White House should have taken this more seriously.”
However, many Republican officials remained publicly silent on Saturday over any unrest over their political future as they hoped for Trump’s return and voters would not pass harsh verdicts in November.
Former New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg (R) said this will be the pre-election stance of most Republican candidates.
“There was no coherent strategy from the president,” but Democratic leaders “politicized it and used it as a wedge,” Gregg said, arguing that voters would ultimately see the pandemic as “what was like a terrible hurricane where you were cannot take the blame and have little control over it. “
But Trump’s hospitalization at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and a series of confusing White House statements about his condition kept the GOP uncertain.
It was unclear when their leader would be able to return to the campaign and keep the president’s race strangely quiet as Trump’s tweets continued to decline and Democratic candidate Joe Biden turned off negative advertising.
Even the event that many Republicans saw a few days ago as the culmination of an otherwise difficult year – Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s installation before Election Day at the Supreme Court – faced new hurdles in virus diagnoses and revelations from Senators who several people may have become infected at their nomination ceremony in the White House.
Striking images of last weekend’s event, in which influential Republicans and lawmakers mingled without masks, appeared to play on a loop on cable TV, fueling critics for calling the party ruthless and making superspreader events possible.
“Your extraordinary rejection of what scientists have recommended is coming home to settle,” said Irwin E. Redlener, founding director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Risk Reduction.
Redlener, a former Biden advisor, said, “Anyone who has subscribed to the president’s dishonest news about the virus is faced with the reality that the president himself is sick.”
While GOP leaders publicly shook off concerns about the party’s operations and its message, private concern was widespread as aiders and donors expressed their frustration over the supposed lack of strategy and guidance from Trump’s team in a health, economic and crisis crisis expressed political challenges.
But Republicans’ ability to escape, to be seen by moderate and independent voters as a party taking a policy-first, science-second stance, could be difficult after Trump lasted months with a pandemic that killed more than 200,000 Americans was cheered.
When the government’s coronavirus task force asked Americans to wear masks and social distancing, Trump held rallies where face-covering was scarce, encouraged reopening of the country’s economy and schools, claimed the virus would “just go away” and deliberately misled the public about his lethality because he did not want to “panic”.
Key Republicans isolated themselves Saturday after recently testing positive for the coronavirus, including Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien and Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee. Other Trump advisors – like former White House aide Kellyanne Conway and Christie – have also tested positive.
Campaign advisors said Saturday that they don’t believe Trump will be back on the campaign trail for 10 to 14 days and that more than a dozen trips to swing states are likely to be canceled or postponed during that period. They refused to say whether the big rallies that have become Trump’s staple food will stop.
“We will mobilize the entire MAGA universe to push the president forward until he returns to the election campaign,” said campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh.
Republicans’ concern extends to the GOP Senate majority battle after Tillis, who lagged behind the polls and sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced that he tested positive on Friday. While asymptomatic, the senator said he would isolate at home for 10 days.
Another member of the Justice Committee, Lee, and Johnson were also diagnosed with the coronavirus last week, potentially complicating the plans of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) To enforce Barrett’s nomination.
McConnell said Saturday that “the floor trial will be postponed to October 19,” but said the “confirmation hearings for Judge Barrett’s nomination” will go as planned. GOP aides said Barrett’s hearings could be conducted at least in part through a remote videoconference.
Polls on the political map last week have further darkened the outlook as incumbents in traditional GOP enclaves, particularly in the south, where the Democrats fuel the black community and suburban white voters amid significant changes in the population of several states .
Beyond Tillis, Senator Lindsey O. Graham (RS.C.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, remains in a close race with Democrat Jaime Harrison.
In the industrial Midwest, Democrats see a way out for Biden and Democrats as the pandemic continues to rock the region.
“I felt it before the president’s circumstances and now even more,” said former Ohio governor Ted Strickland (D), an ally of Biden, on Saturday. Regarding Trump family members who last week had their face covers removed after entering the President’s Debate Room in violation of the Ground Rules, Strickland added, “They had the President’s family in Cleveland, no mask, and everyone else was wearing you. That sent a message to everyone who watched: there is an incredible amount of arrogance about the president. People can see it clearly. “
Biden has a steady advantage over Trump nationwide, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll last month. Biden and Vice President Sen. Kamala D. Harris (California) lead Trump and Vice President Pence in registered voters by 53 to 43 percent, statistically unchanged from a 12-point lead in a poll conducted in August before the conventions .
Within the Trump campaign and Trump-allied GOP circles on Saturday, some aides and strategists said they were confident despite the turmoil, citing Trump’s optimistic tweets – urging Congress to pass another stimulus bill – and Vice President Pence as a political problem solver.
Pence, who has tested negative for the coronavirus in the past few days, plans to travel extensively in Salt Lake City following his upcoming debate with Harris on Oct.7, a Pence aide said. Justin Clark, the assistant campaign manager, works with Pence’s staff to organize trips and surrogate mothers.
“We will maximize the number of family members, allies and proxies in this upcoming phase,” said Jason Miller, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign.
Pence’s debate is seen by some Republicans as a way to both empower Trump with shy voters and to refresh the party’s message about the pandemic, as Pence has led the coronavirus task force.
“All he has to do is be friendly and pleasant, be calming and knowledgeable,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R).
Meanwhile, the RNC and Trump campaign volunteers will keep up with ongoing field efforts such as door knocking campaigns, despite personal fundraisers being canceled, party officials said.
On Saturday, a group of top Republicans continued their campaigns in Iowa. For Governor Kim Reynolds (R) and Trump’s political advisor Marc Lotter, among others, the road trip through the state went as usual.
Lotter tweeted photos from the tour, including a shot of Reynolds and Republicans without a mask and high-fiving indoors. On the wall were posters with “Trump 2020” and “Trump: Keep America Great”.
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.